WHY GIVING UP “FAST FASHION” IS ONE OF THE BEST THINGS I'VE DONE

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     Staying relevant in the fashion industry, while maintaining my ethics, was something that I grappled with a lot. As issues of sustainability and ethics became more important in my life, I began to question if “staying relevant” was really an issue at all. Was this just an insecurity that I developed after 15 years of advertising telling me I wasn’t good enough if I didn’t have the latest trend? I realized the questions I was having were actually masking an even deeper truth. I was unsure about who I was, and fast fashion only perpetuated that confusion. 

"I was unsure about who I was, and fast fashion only perpetuated that confusion."

     Beginning as a teenager, as most of us deal with issues of identity, I questioned who I was and how I wanted to present that person to the world. One year I felt goth and the next year hippie. As fast as I could throw out one identity (and the clothes that went along with it), I was replacing it with a new one. Stores like Hot Topic, Wet Seal, and Forever 21 provided trendy clothes at dirt cheap prices, and fueled my search with lots of wear and waste. Although I am thankful for these years of exploration, they lasted way too long, and far beyond my years of teenage angst.

     Throughout college, and into my career as a model, this confusion didn’t go away. With newer, more trendy stores like H&M and Zara, I never wanted to stop and think about my own personal style… the one that reflected who I am deep inside. I wanted to keep up with the trends and remained prey to the constant “Hot and Not” lists that advertisers and fast fashion CEOs count on. It wasn’t until graduating college, going vegan, and investigating the vast environmental issues facing us, that I started to even question who made my clothes. 

     A film premiere in New York of the documentary called True Cost was the catalyst for my journey. Released after the Rana Plaza disaster on April 24, 2013, it highlights the astonishing inequality that garment workers are subjected to across the globe. It shows the horror of the 1,134 people who were killed and the over 2,500 that were injured in Dhaka, Bangladesh when the complex collapsed. Despite earning my degree in Biology, the massive affect of the clothing we wear on the environment hadn't occurred to me. True Cost demonstrates how and why the fashion industry is one of the largest polluter on Earth, perhaps less damaging than the oil industry alone.** Fast fashion being the main culprit. This film was not only an eye-opener but it also marked a huge turning point in my life.

     I knew something had to change and that my mindless consumption of fast fashion had to stop. My true identity, no longer a question of outward appearance but something deep within, was finally able to take shape. Limiting my purchases to consciously manufactured pieces and consuming only that which I truly need, each item of clothing that I would own from that day forward needed to truly reflect the person that I am. My clothing also needed to last, which meant I had to be comfortable with that identity for a long period of time.

     For the first time I was forced to really ask myself, "Who am I?" and "How will I present this person to the World?". Although it was difficult at first, with practice and time I have been able to curate a wardrobe I feel confident in wearing over and over again. I have pieces that are sustainable and ethically made that all fit together. I have formed a unique capsule collection of clothing that confidently reflects my true self. 

"Limiting my purchases to consciously manufactured pieces and consuming only that which I truly need, each item of clothing that I would own from that day forward needed to truly reflect the person that I am."

     I now know that the clothing choices I make have a huge impact. “80 billion pieces of clothing are bought each year, and on average we only wear 20% of the clothes in our closet. The average American also throws away 82 pounds of textiles each year, adding to 11 million tons of textile waste in the U.S. alone." Giving up fast fashion therefore reduces huge amounts of toxic waste in landfills. Without much effort on the part of consumers, buying less and choosing well, also reduces the degradation of Earth’s waterways and ecosystems.

     Climate change is real. We are using up the Earth’s resources at a rate that compares to no other time in history. In order to sustain life in the way that humans are living now, we would need SEVEN planet Earths. The little things that we, as individuals, do everyday all add up to combat climate change. Ask the question, “Who made my Clothes?”, and stop supporting brands that exploit their labor. Investigate the environmental affects that our clothing has. Fashion Revolution and one of my favorite brands, Zady, both have vast amounts of information on their websites available for free. If you haven't seen the movie, True Cost is available for viewing via their website, Netflix, Amazon and iTunes. I cannot recommend it enough.

     Giving up fast fashion has not only been an inspiring and fun journey for me with my clothes, but also helped me find confidence in how I present myself to the world. Never underestimate the power of small, daily actions that all add up to be a huge reduction in our carbon footprint. Not only will you be supporting our fellow humans and the planet, but you may even find out more about yourself. 

-Renee Peters


Want to get involved?

“Take two very simple actions that we perform every single day: getting dressed and eating. Now start a journey backwards – to where your food and your clothes come from. At the other end, you will rarely find happy people, treated with dignity and respect. Human beings working at the bottom of any supply chain are often treated like slaves, without reference to our common humanity. So ‘fashion’ – i.e. what we wear every single day, has huge relevance and huge consequences on human, social and environmental capital.”     - Liva Firth, Eco Age
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***2018 UPDATE: A report conducted by Quantis and Climate Works, released in February of 2018, now shows that, "Combined, the global apparel and footwear industries account for an estimated 8% of the world ́s greenhouse gas emissions." Read the full report here --> Measuring Fashion: Insights from the Environmental Impact of the Global Apparel and Footwear Industries study

 

Q&A WITH MELISSA CANTOR OF ETHICA

Tell me a bit about yourself.

     My name is Melissa Cantor. I'm originally from Tegucigalpa, Honduras (which is part of what sparked my interest in commerce as a tool for international development and positive social impact). I started my career as a magazine editor in Miami; later worked on digital media launches for companies like NBC, AOL and Fox; and most recently spent a couple of years working on web and social content at Tiffany & Co. and L'Oreal.
     I'm the co-founder and editor of Ethica, which I launched with my sister and husband in 2012, as well as an occasional freelance writer whose work has been published by CNN and New York magazine, among others.

What is Ethica?

     Ethica opened its virtual doors in September 2012 with a pioneering proposition: to make it simple and, above all, exciting to support ethical and sustainable fashion. Our brands range from buzzy up-and-comers to industry pioneers to tiny artisan outfits. In 2015, we expanded our selection to include a small selection of change-makers in the world of clean beauty as well.

What does “Sustainable Fashion" mean to you?

     It's timeless, high-quality clothing made with respect for people, the planet and other living beings. On a personal level, for me it's come to mean understanding the story behind a garment and falling in love with that aspect of it, in addition to the way it looks and feels. When I receive a compliment on an ethically made or sustainable item, I always have something I could share about it (though of course I don't always do so!), whether it's the fact that it's made of reclaimed materials, made in one of the few knitwear factories remaining in the U.S., etc. It adds a layer of enjoyment to it for me.
     From an industry perspective, I really like this question because it underscores the fact that ethical and sustainable are broad and subjective terms. From day one at Ethica, we have spelled out on every product page exactly why we consider an item ethical and sustainable, so that the shopper doesn't have to rely on our definition and can make her own decision. We hope that this translates into more empowered and informed consumers all around, not just when they are shopping with us.

Does the sustainable design trend we are currently seeing in fashion reinvigorate your passion for the industry?

     Yes, absolutely. I left my career as a fashion writer to launch Ethica precisely because I no longer wanted to be part of the status quo, and it's very encouraging to see how many people have embraced this movement in the past few years, from all aspects of the industry – you're a great example of this! I love meeting people who are contributing different sets of talents toward this common goal. For me as a writer and communicator, the creative and anthropological aspects of fashion are what have always been appealing, and both of these are magnified in sustainable fashion. There is so much creativity in terms of use of materials, designing for longevity, using commerce to make a positive impact, and so many takeaways when you look at this movement from a social and cultural perspectives. So yes, I'm really encouraged by everything I see, and it's so fulfilling to be able to create awareness about these issues and also offer people a platform where they can turn that knowledge into action.

Do you think an on-trend / contemporary wardrobe is possible, while maintaining our ethics?

     100 percent. Ethics aside, I don't think cheaply made, trend-driven clothing is the foundation of a good wardrobe. Deliberately investing in well-designed, well-made pieces over time is much more likely to lead to a strong wardrobe, so I think ethics and style go hand in hand.
Returning to the idea of story, when you have a personal connection to the things that you purchase, and when your closet is full of things that you want to keep over the years (instead of picking something up and going, "What was I thinking when I bought this?"), your wardrobe becomes an aspect of your personal narrative, and isn't that ultimately what style is?

The average consumer doesn't believe that they have the extra income required to pay the true cost of their clothing. Many seem to believe more sustainable options are too expensive or simply unavailable. How do you respond to this claim?

     I say that supporting ethical and sustainable fashion doesn't have to be a zero-sum game. That creates such a barrier to entry, mentally, and it turns it into something that people will do "someday." If you can't afford to buy ethical and sustainable fashion exclusively, that's ok. But there's surely a step that you can take, like maybe giving up shopping at one fast fashion store. Or buying just some things ethically. I know someone who's very committed to ethical fashion and sustainability, but who makes an exception for shoes because she can't find affordable options. I think that's perfectly reasonable, and it doesn't minimize her support for sustainable brands in other categories. It's about taking the first step, and then the next one, instead of thinking of it as this big, restrictive, expensive lifestyle. The more that you explore the field, the more options you'll find. There are a lot of great, affordable brands out there, along with plenty of sales and secondhand options. 

Is sustainable fashion able to reach everyday consumers who may shop in "fast fashion" now?

     It's certainly available to anyone with an interest in it. The bigger challenge, in my view, is creating that interest. Some people just don't want to engage in these issues, even if you tell them that the fashion industry is nearly as bad as the oil industry, or that a lifetime of wearing formaldehyde-soaked clothes might give them cancer someday. And I understand that, because that's not exactly an uplifting message. That's why good design is so important, because it's a way of attracting people through something positive, and once they have a positive experience, they can hopefully start to outgrow fast fashion.

What does "green living" mean to you? How do you incorporate green living into your life?

     It means to tread lightly, and to try to at least not leave anything worse than I found it–whether that's a person on the other side of the world who is affected by my choices, or whether it's a more direct environmental impact. I've always thought of myself as someone who cares for and about the environment, but giving up single-use plastic and aspiring to zero-waste living in recent years has absolutely blown my mind. I'm not zero-waste yet (or even close), but I work toward these goals every day.
     When people ask me how or where to start on a journey to sustainability, I suggest seeing how long they can go without buying something that's made in China or how long they can do without single-use plastic bottles, bags or straws. It's really eye-opening as to how pervasive these things are.